Lucy’s Game – Nicole Spradling

Lucy would stick her long, blonde nose as close to our own noses as possible without touching, and stare straight into us from her own deep, black eyes.  After a few short sniffs, she would nudge her head toward us, encouraging us to pet her soft head. When we finally acquiesced, and were sufficiently distracted, she would try to stick her tongue into our mouths. It was her own invented game.

“Gross!!” My husband would say. However, Lucy’s antics caused our younger two kids to throw their heads back with open, gleeful mouths emitting a wonderful, contagious child laughter. This provided the perfect opportunity for Lucy to pop her tongue in their mouths again and again. “Ugh! Close your mouths!” We took turns scolding both kids, then the dog. “Stop that, Lucy!” But our pleasure in seeing our kids giggle so deeply outweighed our disgust, our admonishments sounded too good-natured to Lucy to make her quit. In fact, we only seemed to encourage her. In an otherwise feeble effort to keep some of the dog-mouth germs at bay, I began brushing Lucy’s teeth once a week. 

Eventually, the kids grew older and wiser and became a bit more grossed-out at the thought of dog-mouth germs entering their own mouths, so they learned not to laugh open-mouthed near Lucy, despite her determined endeavors to entertain them. Successful wins at her game therefore lessened. When they did occur, her front paws pit-patted the ground repeatedly, as if clapping for herself, while her tail enthusiastically thumped the floor.  

Lucy and her sister Ethel were tiny puppies, mixes of Australian shepherd and border collie breeds, when found tossed aside on a Texas road. My husband mused that they resembled Dr. Seuss characters with two crooked-white-striped noses, white socks, and fluffy white feet. Lucy was light-blonde with eager, black eyes. Her sister Ethel sports darker, rust colored fur with light, hazel eyes. Where Lucy had white trim around her nose and ears, her sister Ethel has black trim.  Together they were the yin and the yang: side-by-side since birth, never separated. 

Family vacations usually began with two kids in car-seats and two dogs in between, traveling mostly to state parks or nearby Texas beaches where both kids and dogs could run free. Lazy afternoons consisted of family time in the den with kids and dogs on couches beside us. Ethel preferred resting beside our older daughter Cara, while Lucy usually chose to snuggle with our younger son, Gregory, his head propped up on her side or her head on his lap. The two were usually found nestled on the couch, two slim bodies alongside each other, with Lucy’s front and back legs stretched out in opposite directions. Her loving warmth had rescued him in much deeper ways than repairing skinned knees or painful, wiggly, loose teeth. 

Despite beloved bacon smells arising from the kitchen each morning, Lucy remained steadfastly upstairs until the last family member went downstairs, usually that was her Gregory. No matter how rushed our mornings were, each and every one of us stopped to tickle her big white belly before traveling down the stairs.  She sensed mornings when we were tired and would choose those opportunities to strike, trying to wedge that tongue into our mouths. Whether-or-not she won the game, she knew she could always get a laugh out of us. Perhaps that was her real goal after all.

Although Lucy and Ethel were partners in many crimes around the house, their self-imposed job was to protect our family, and they took that seriously. They once woke us at 4am with incessant barking at the outside window of my daughter’s bedroom.  We arrived just in time to see two white guys with backpacks and hoodies running away from our driveway directly underneath the window. 

When the dogs reached nine years of age, Ethel remained spry, but Lucy’s climb up our stairs for her night-watch with her sister outside our bedrooms grew laborious. Her plentiful kisses and tail-wagging belied the pain she tried to hide from us, but her low hanging head and drooping eyes told the truth. Her enthusiasm diminished and she vomited more and more often.  Months of bloodwork testing, x-rays, cat scans, sonograms, specialists, and switching vets, revealed nothing. 

Christmas 2017 was tough because Lucy wasn’t the same, so neither were we. An empty, hollow feeling existed in the heart of each of the Spradling family members – including Grandma and Grampa. Nobody wanted to admit our days together with Lucy were numbered.  Yet she somehow managed to keep a twinkle in her eye alive that season for us, especially around the kids. Santa gave her soft chews in her stocking that year. 

A couple days later, our new vet called to say that he was still unsure of the cause of Lucy’s pain, but felt certain it was liver cancer.  He recommended heavy painkillers until we were comfortable with the decision to put her to sleep permanently. But Lucy on painkillers wouldn’t feel like Lucy at all, and her pain worsened each day, so we called a mobile vet.  We wanted to hold her and stroke her in her own home when we said goodbye.  

The mobile vet demonstrated tremendous patience as we leaned over Lucy, quietly whispering words of love and gratitude with Ethel circling around us, pausing often to sniff her fading sister. We yearned to smile soothingly for her, but our hearts were too heavy and our eyes were too full of tears.  She nudged her head toward Gregory and he tilted his head closer to hers in their old embrace. It was her soft way of saying goodbye.  As the vet leaned forward, needle in hand, our Lucy popped her tongue into Gregory’s mouth one last time. It was her last hurrah for the win. “Oh, Lucy!” We all chuckled through our tears. While we were sufficiently distracted, Lucy quietly closed her eyes… and left us. 

In 2006, Nicole St.Romain Spradling retired from her International Flight Attendant career to design and open a small, neighborhood business in Austin, Texas. She eventually sold the business to a neighbor so she could spend more time with her two human and two canine children. She currently attempts to juggle kids’ schedules and struggles while writing a creative nonfiction book about a woman whose likeness and story was taken and used in a NYT bestselling novel. She is an avid animal protector and once had a wasp live on the top of her head for a full day, much to the terror of her anxious young son. Thanks for taking this journey with her down memory lane and acknowledging an old friend of hers. Lucy would like to pit-pat her front feet on the floor beside you to say thank you as well.